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Marcus Belgrave 1936-2015

Marcus BelgraveIt would be hard to exaggerate the influence, or indeed the excellence, of the small bands Ray Charles led in the late 1950s and early 1960s. One by one, their members have disappeared. (Rather movingly, three of Charles’s great saxophone players, Hank Crawford, David “Fathead” Newman and Leroy “Hog” Cooper, died within days of each other in January 2009.) Now another one has gone: the trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who joined Charles in 1958 and stayed five years, playing on the sessions that produced “What’d I Say” and the immortal Genius Sings the Blues album.

I particularly love Belgrave’s playing on Fathead, Newman’s first solo album and the initial release in Atlantic’s “Ray Charles Presents…” series, produced in 1959 by Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, with Charles on piano and Crawford, playing baritone, rounding out the three-man front line. It’s a typical and wonderful fusion of R&B feeling with mainstream jazz and bebop structures: completely natural and unaffected music, totally satisfying on every level. The warm-toned trumpet solos are deftly formed and joyously lyrical: it’s no accident that Clifford Brown was one of Belgrave’s early idols.

An excellent obituary by Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press (read it here) tells us that Belgrave was born in Chester, Pennsylvania in 1936. His cousin Cecil Payne, one of the handful of the outstanding baritone saxophonists of the bop era, taught him how to play the new music, and he played with Brownie — who was six years older — in a student band in Delaware. It was with Ray Charles that he learned to play fewer notes.

Tired of life on the road, he turned down offers from Duke Ellington, Horace Silver and Charles Mingus and settled in Detroit in 1963. It is said that he played on a few Motown hits of the period, including “Dancing in the Street”, and he certainly became an important figure on the local jazz scene, both as a player and as a teacher. Those he mentored included the pianist Geri Allen (with whom he appeared on several albums) and the saxophonist Kenny Garrett. He was also a guest soloist with Was (Not Was), the great boho-disco band led by Don and David Was in Detroit in the 1980s (that’s him on their classic dancefloor 12-inch “Wheel Me Out”).

Marcus Belgrave was one of those figures who ensured the continuity of the jazz tradition, taking what he had learnt from his elders and passing it on to later generations. He was, by all accounts, much loved in his community: when a thief took his custom-made copper-belled horn from his car earlier this year, the pawn shop in which it was spotted waived the $350 that it would normally have cost him to reclaim it, given that they had not been aware they were acquiring stolen property.

One way to remember him would be to enjoy his contributions to the solo sequences on “Hard Times” and “Weird Beard”, a couple of tracks from Fathead. Just beautiful, I hope you’ll agree.

Lambert & Stamp

Lambert & StampIt amazes me that so many documentary makers fail to heed the principal lesson of Asif Kapadia’s Senna, which is that any relevant archive footage, however scrappy, is more interesting than a talking head. It’s a pity that James D. Cooper didn’t learn it before he started putting together Lambert & Stamp, his film about the two men who managed the Who from their first success in 1964 until the relationship broke down in acrimony 10 years later.

A compelling subject is enough to carry the first half of the film. After that the viewer tires of extended close-ups of Pete Townshend, Chris Stamp and Roger Daltrey sitting in hotel rooms or studios, even when they’re saying interesting things. The archive clips are chopped up and edited fast on the eye, to borrow Bob Dylan’s phrase. Too fast, in fact. The eye wants to rest on them, to be given time to absorb the details. A technique wholly suited to the titles of Ready Steady Go! is not appropriate to this very different project. The exception is a wonderful piece of footage of Stamp and Kit Lambert encountering Jimi Hendrix and Chas Chandler in a London club, possibly the Ad Lib or the Bag O’Nails; we do get to look at that properly, thank goodness.

It’s a story that certainly deserved to be told. Stamp — born in London’s docklands, the son of a tugboat captain — brother of Terence, the male face of ’60s London — almost as good looking but sharp and tough, with more front than Harrods. Lambert — Lancing, Oxford, the Army — the gay son of a celebrated English composer — explaining mod culture to foreign TV interviewers in fluent French and German — empathising immediately with Townshend’s latent talent and Keith Moon’s very unlatent lunacy.

A pretty bruiser and a bruised prettiness: it was a potent combination. “I fell in love with both of them immediately,” Townshend recalls. It’s easy to see how he and, to varying degrees, the other members of the Who were jolted into self-actualisation by the vision and audacity of a pair of energetic wide boys whose real ambition was to get into the film business and who initially saw the music as a vehicle for their ambition.

The viewer does not come away with the impression that the whole truth about the break-up in 1974 has been told, and a few other salient features of the story have gone missing. One is any acknowledgment of Peter Meaden, their first manager when they were still the High Numbers: an authentic mod who helped establish their direction. Another is Shel Talmy, the producer of their first three (and greatest) singles, given only a passing and mildly derogatory mention, without being named.

Lambert died in 1981, aged 45, worn out by his destructive appetites, although the immediate cause of death was a cerebral haemorrhage following a domestic fall. Stamp had conquered his own addictions long before his death in 2012 at the age of 70, having spent many years as a therapist and counsellor. His interviews with the director are used extensively but, lacking the matching testimony of his former partner, his wry eloquence inevitably seems to unbalance the narrative.

At 120 minutes, the film eventually feels bloated. If the first hour passes like a series of three-minute singles, the second is a bit of a rock opera, the occasional interesting fragment separated by long stretches of filler. But, of course, anybody interested in the era should see it.

Taking on the British Invasion

Bobby ComstockFifty years ago this month, Bobby Comstock’s version of Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” was trying and failing to make it into the US and UK charts. It’s interesting to me not just as a favourite record from an almost freakishly fruitful year but as an example of one response to the British Invasion: an American artist copying a British approach to an American idiom.

Born in 1941 in Ithaca, New York, Bobby Comstock is a singer and guitarist who nibbled at the fringe of the Top 50 in 1958 with a lightly rocked-up treatment of “Tennessee Waltz”. It was released on the Triumph label, started by Herb Abramson after his departure from Atlantic Records, and since the 17-year-old Comstock’s early patrons also included Alan Freed and Dick Clark, it’s a little surprising that he didn’t do better. Five years later, having fallen in with the successful publisher Wes Farrell and the songwriting/production team of Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richie Gottehrer, he released “Let’s Stomp” on the Lawn label. Despite climbing no higher than No 57, it became a party favourite and was widely covered over the years. Thanks to his association with Feldman, Goldstein and Gottehrer, he also played guitar on the Angels’ wonderful “My Boyfriend’s Back”, a girl-group classic.

“I’m a Man” is something very different and vastly superior: a raw blue-eyed R&B record with a crunching guitar/bass/drum riff, sinister organ, and lashings of echo on Comstock’s very impressive vocal. I don’t know who plays the eight bars of jagged guitar solo — probably Bobby himself — but it’s as impressive as anything Jimmy Page produced in his days as a teenaged session man over on the other side of the Atlantic.

Comstock grew up in the middle of the doo-wop era, and his earliest heroes included Chuck Berry, but I’d guess that “I’m a Man” sounds the way it does because in the summer of 1964 he and his band, the Counts, had supported the Rolling Stones on a handful of East Coast dates, finishing at Carnegie Hall. As he watched the chart-storming English longhairs delivering their interpretations of hard-core R&B songs to audiences in Pittsburgh, Pennsylania and Harrisburg, West Virginia as well as on Seventh Avenue in New York City, he must have felt he’d been given a licence to try it himself.

The single came out on Ascot Records in the US and United Artists in the UK; the copy I bought back then is pictured above. I had a Saturday job in a record shop at the time, and I guess that’s how I first heard it, while checking out the new releases. It certainly didn’t get much, if any, radio play.

Comstock had no more hits but made a good living for the rest of his career as a performer and backing musician — to artists including Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley — on the rock and roll revival shows promoted by Dick Clark and Richard Nader. He’s now living in retirement in Southern California, leaving the rest of us to carry on listening to “I’m a Man”, a highlight of his 24th year.

Gary Peacock: The place of the bass

Gary PeacockRight from the earliest days of jazz, its musicians have humanised the instruments on which they play, particularly those instruments whose identities were formed in the European classical tradition. If the phenomenon is most obvious with members of the brass and reed families, it is no less true of instruments that do not depend on breath to generate their sound. And next to Charles Mingus and Charlie Haden, the musician who most clearly imbues the double bass with the inflections of the human voice is Gary Peacock, who celebrates his 80th birthday tomorrow.

What is impossible to miss in Peacock’s playing is a profound emotional weight, expressed with a lightness of touch, a lithe, sinewy phrasing and a lyricism reaching far beyond that term’s usual connotations. He has always seemed to be as comfortable playing free jazz with Albert Ayler and Sunny Murray (on the world-changing Spiritual Unity in 1964) as finding new angles on the show tunes and jazz classics he plays with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette, his fellow members of the long-lived Standards Trio.

He was born in Burley, Idaho on May 12, 1935, and came late to the bass, after studying piano and percussion at music college in Los Angeles. It was with a US Army band in Germany that he first picked it up, aged 21, and — according to a recent interview — “just sort of figured it out” for himself, a remark that gives no hint of the great sophistication of his playing but might explain its prevailing air of naturalness.

In 1962, while still based in Los Angeles, he made his recording debut with the quartet of the trumpeter Don Ellis and the trio of the pianist Clare Fischer. The first time I heard his work was on Tony Williams’s great Life Time album in 1964, where he, Richard Davis and Ron Carter were the three bassists, and he suffered not at all from the comparison. He was on Williams’s equally brilliant follow-up, Spring, alongside Wayne Shorter and Sam Rivers. Then came Spiritual Unity and the quartet Ayler co-led with Don Cherry. With Bill Evans on Trio 64, Peacock confirmed his standing as the natural heir to the late Scott LaFaro, whose dexterity and imagination he shared, and worked for the first time with Paul Motian.

The piano trio has always been the context in which he is most likely to be found, whether with Paul Bley, Masabumi Kikuchi or Marilyn Crispell, the line-up most often completed by Motian until the drummer’s death in 2011. Now This, the new album released to coincide with Peacock’s birthday, is also by a trio, featuring the pianist Marc Copland, a long-time associate, and the drummer Joey Baron.

Recorded in Oslo in the summer of 2014, it includes seven of Peacock’s compositions, some of them familiar from earlier versions. The striking “Moor”, for example, was first recorded with Bley and Motian in 1968, followed two years later by a reading with Kikuchi and the drummer Hiroshi Murakami on an album called Eastward, recorded for CBS/Sony in Tokyo. The restless “Requiem” made its debut in 1971 at a further session in Tokyo with Kikuchi and Murakami, released on an album titled Voices; later it was featured on other albums, including Crispell’s Amaryllis, and with other instrumentations.

I mention those two Japanese albums because they are relatively obscure but outstanding, particularly Eastward. So is a third album recorded during the several years that Peacock spent in Japan: Silver World, in which the trio were joined by the shakuhachi virtuoso Hozan Yamamoto; here’s part of the lovely title track, and here’s a piece called “Stone Garden of Ryoan Temple”.

Perhaps it’s too obvious to suggest that Peacock’s study of Zen philosophy exerted a significant influence on his music, which exudes a wonderful sense of calmness and balance even at its most complex and impassioned. Going back and listening to his pre-Japan records, however, you’d have to say that it was there from the beginning: a defining characteristic of a remarkable musician who still, on the evidence of Now This, has much to say.

* The photograph of Gary Peacock’s hands is from the sleeve of Eastward, recorded and and first released in 1970. Now This is released tomorrow by ECM Records.

Introducing Anna-Lena Schnabel

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the end of a long afternoon of listening to German bands at the Jazzahead festival in Bremen last weekend, I heard something that really brought the senses alive: the alto saxophone of Anna-Lena Schnabel, a 22-year-old musician from Hamburg appearing in the Aquarian Jazz Ensemble, a quintet led by the drummer Björn Lücker.

The group was impressive all round, notably the leader’s thoughtful, highly melodic compositions and the restrained lyricism of the trumpeter and flügelhornist Claas Ueberschaer. But it was when Schnabel stepped forward for her first solo that the music really took wing.

There’s a poise to her delivery, a fibrous, pliable quality to her tone and a sustained intensity that remind me a little of the young Mike Osborne. In the context of a half-hour set featuring several tunes, it was interesting to hear how much substance she was able to get into each of her short solos — an endangered art. The varied contouring of her phrases makes you feel as though you’re being taken for a very interesting ride. And on the occasional improvised duets between the two horns, she more than held her own with the experienced Ueberschaer.

The next day I was telling someone about what I’d heard, and he told me a little story about Schnabel. It came from a while ago, when she was a member of the national youth jazz orchestra. They were undertaking a project with one of Germany’s several radio big bands, which are stuffed full of case-hardened professionals, and she was due to be featured on one particular piece. She is, apparently, not the most organised of people, and on this day she got her transport arrangements mixed up and arrived late in a bit of a flurry. My informant mimed the looks of exasperation on the faces of the senior players as they watched this flustered novice unpack her horn. But as soon as the first notes came out, he said, they started taking surreptitious looks over their music stands to confirm that such a stream of eloquence really could be coming from this young woman. Yes, they discovered, it could.

You don’t need to take my word for it: the performance in Bremen was filmed, and here it is. It’s worth a half-hour of anybody’s time, and her longest solo of the set, beginning at 25:50 and climbing out of a lovely ballad with surprising chord changes called “Mellow”, is a particular beauty. I suspect, and very much hope, that we’ll be hearing a lot more from the rather extraordinary Ms Schnabel.

Bernard Stollman and ESP-Disk’

Albert Ayler BellsOn Friday it will be exactly 50 years since Albert Ayler and his musicians appeared at Town Hall in New York City. On May 1, 1965 Ayler’s quintet gave a performance that was released in part on an album titled Bells: a single-sided 12-inch 33rpm disc pressed on transparent plastic, with the title and the artist’s name overprinted in white. The album comprised two untitled pieces together amounting to a few seconds short of 20 minutes. If you wanted to buy it in Britain, not only did you have to pay the considerable premium demanded for records imported from the United States, in this instance you were paying for something that contained half of the standard amount of music. But what music it was.

I bought it by mail order, and I remember the thrill of opening the package. That was the effect of just about any record on ESP-Disk’, the small independent label that issued albums by Ayler, Sun Ra, the New York Art Quartet, Giuseppi Logan, Gato Barbieri, the Fugs, Pearls Before Swine and other names from the New York avant-garde scene. If the visual style of a Blue Note or a Riverside album perfectly reflected the crisp, clean sound of hard bop, the look of an ESP record reflected a wilder sensibility.

Bernard Stollman, the lawyer who founded ESP-Disk’ in 1964, died last week, aged 85. He had run it throughout the 10 years of its original lifetime and then in its subsequent, rather half-hearted, reincarnations. Stollman was a kind of cultural and political idealist — the label’s name came from his belief in the universal language of Esperanto, and he later claimed that ESP was brought down by the US government “because of our opposition to the (Vietnam) war” — but he came in for criticism from musicians who felt he had not properly rewarded them, particularly in terms of royalties.

During the course of an interview with Jason Weiss, the author of Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk’, The Most Outrageous Record Label in America (Wesleyan University Press, 2012), Stollman explained that for each recording he paid $300 to the leader and $50-100 to the other musicians. “They all shared ownership of the album,” he added, and therein, or so one imagines, lay a world of trouble once licensing agreements started to be made with record companies outside the US. He also claimed: “There is no ESP musician today with whom I can’t communicate amicably.”

Some unquestionably resented him for seeming to profit from their art. But Milford Graves, the great drummer who was a member of the New York Art Quartet on their classic ESP album, and who would start his own label (SRP, with the pianist Don Pullen) later in the decade, put an interesting viewpoint to Weiss:

I look at the positives, he said, because I can’t deal with the negatives of Bernard Stollman. I just know one thing: nobody was recording us in the ’60s other than ESP! And the pay that maybe you didn’t get from Bernard, it neutralises itself because if you had to hire a public-relations person, you were going to have to pay him. So you’re still going to come out to zero. It balances out, a plus and a minus. Now, ESP puts you out. What are you going to do after that? Albert Ayler became what, he started putting out — that’s all through ESP. Myself, through ESP, I came out… Look, ESP publicised us all over the planet, so anybody complaining about Bernard, I have to ask people, You’ve got to check yourself out. That’s over, man. Bernard was a businessman — he wasn’t a charitable organisation… With Bernard, you’ve got to say, “Hey, man, you started something, Look, you did what you did.”

ESP albums had a real counter-cultural charisma, and Bells — poorly recorded and bizarrely packaged (the sleeve of my copy has the word “stereo” redacted by someone with a marker pen in the company’s offices) — had more than most. Its sequence of blaring unison themes, wild collective improvisation and emotionally audacious solos by Ayler, his brother Don on trumpet and Charles Tyler on alto saxophone, with Lewis Worrell almost inaudible on bass through the firestorm set up by the astonishing Sunny Murray on drums, retains every ounce of the impact it must have made on the Town Hall audience half a century ago, and certainly on a teenager opening a package a few months later and three thousand miles away.

Love Don’t Love Nobody

As long as Boz Scaggs goes on making records, I imagine I’ll keep buying them. Although his new one, A Fool to Care, has its pleasant moments, it isn’t up there with the very best of his work. And, unusually for Boz, it also contains a serious misstep, one that’s worth noting because of its nature.

It’s a cover version, and when Scaggs chooses to cover a song, you can tell it’s because he loved the original. He never moves far from the way it first fell on his ears. And a man who can deliver a decent cover of something as extraordinary as Mable John’s “Your Real Good Thing (Is About to End)”, as he did on Come on Home in 1997, is not to be disrespected. With one song on the new album, however, he overreached himself before he even got started.

The Spinners’ “Love Don’t Love Nobody” was one of the finest soul records of the 1970s, and still sounds to me like one of the greatest deep-soul ballads of all time. It was written by Charles Simmons and Joseph Jefferson, whose credits appeared on many Philadephia records of the era; the arrangement and production came from the extremely great Thom Bell, who moulded the hits of the Delfonics and the Stylistics as well those of the Spinners. It also has a lead vocal that shows what was lost to the art of soul singing when Philippé Wynne died in 1984 at the age of 43, after suffering a heart attack on stage in Oakland, Calfornia.

Wynne could decorate a song with wonderfully inventive ornamentation which, by contrast with the work of the narcissists of today’s so-called R&B, never called undue attention to itself but was always in the service of the song, the arrangement, and the production. In that respect he was the peer of Ronald Isley and Teddy Pendergrass. And he was at his exalted best on “Love Don’t Love Nobody”: seven minutes and 13 seconds of soul heaven.

The record begins with Bell’s piano, discreetly shadowed by a bass guitar and vibes, quietly commanding attention. There’s gospel in the cadences, but also a grave delicacy in Bell’s keyboard voicings and a pensive elegance in his touch. It’s the sound of introspection, even the sound of sadness itself, setting Wynne up for his entrance with that heart-rending opening verse: “Sometimes a girl will come and go / You reach for love, but life won’t let you know / That in the end you’ll still be loving her / But then she’s gone, you’re all alone…”

As the track builds, Wynne adds his characteristic inventions to the song but firmly resists the temptation to overdo it. He’s listening to Bell’s arrangement, so spare, so subtly sophisticated as it adds strings and backing voices, and he’s making himself a part of it, even when he jams over the long fade.

One other thing. I was doing some remixing at Sigma Sound in 1974 when I fell into conversation with an engineer, and asked him about Thom Bell. When I told him how much I admired “Love Don’t Love Nobody”, he said that he’d worked on that session a year or so earlier. He told me that the rhythm track had been done in a single take, and that Bell had finished it in tears. That knowledge doesn’t make me listen to it in a different way, but perhaps it does help to explain the very deep connection that it can make.

Boz Scaggs does a decent job on a song of which he is obviously very fond. But I can’t help wondering if, had he known about Thom Bell’s tears, he’d still have decided to take it on.

To Pimp a Butterfly: the shape of jazz to come?

Kendrick LamarKendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly feels and sounds like one of the most important albums in years. I only wish I were able to explain properly why that might be so, but it would take somebody with a much deeper and more secure knowledge of the musical idiom and, more important, the social context from which it springs.

In his excellent Guardian review, Alexis Petridis invoked the names of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone. I hear something different. What it reminds me of — and this is about as high a compliment as I can pay — is a group of albums that came out in the late ’60s and early ’70s, reflecting black America’s various states of mind in that turbulent era: the proud isolationism of Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music, the deep lament of Art Ensemble of Chicago’s People in Sorrow, and the rage within the Last Poets’ debut album (the one containing “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution”). It doesn’t sound remotely like any of them, of course, but it springs from the same collective consciousness, albeit from a very individual and, as it seems to me, original viewpoint. It, too, speaks of a turbulent time.

If you want to take your involvement further than appreciating the surface of the album, by getting to grips with the complicated issues that Kendrick Lamar is exploring, it’s worth listening to it once all the way through while reading the lyrics, which can be found here, along with a certain amount of textual analysis. Introspection is not uncommon among rappers, and there’s a refrain which crops up on several of the tracks: “I remember you was conflicted / Misusing your influence / Sometimes I did the same / Abusing my power, full of resentment / Resentment that turned into a deep depression / Found myself screaming in a hotel room.” But what’s going on here is not solipsism or self-pity. Lamar seems able to find a connection between his own soul-searching and a broader social context.

The totality of this very big and complex picture is what counts, but among the individual highlights for me are the sudden explosion of hard bop in “For Free? (Interlude)”, the appearance of Ronald Isley to sing a single resonant verse at the end of “How Much a Dollar Cost”, and the extraordinary passage in the closing “Mortal Man” where Lamar edits in sections of an interview given by Tupac Shakur, interposing his own voice in the place of the original interviewer (we don’t know whether he has rephrased the questions, or is merely repeating them). Tupac talks about the imminence of conflict: “I think that niggas is tired of grabbin’ shit out of stores and next time it’s a riot there’s gonna be, like, bloodshed for real. I don’t think America know that.” He died in 1996, almost 20 years before Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and, now, Walter Scott.

Easier for me to talk about is the contribution made by people such as the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, the pianists Robert Glasper and Brandon Coleman, the saxophonists Terrace Martin and Kamasi Washington, and the bassist Stephen Bruner (known as Thundercat) and his brother, the drummer Ronald Bruner Jr. The inclusion of these musicians in a project such as this, and in Flying Lotus’s You’re Dead from last year, might be among the best things to have happened to jazz in recent decades.

Ever since the eruption of bebop, which moved jazz away from the dancefloor, there has been a problematic relationship between jazz and the popular music of the day. Sometimes, as with the Charles Lloyd Quartet of the late ’60s, Miles Davis’s post-1968 music, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and, in a lighter tone, the work of Ramsey Lewis, Ronnie Laws and Roy Ayers, jazz has edged closer to the relationship it enjoyed in the ’20s and ’30s, when it maintained a balance between mind and body. It may be — although I say this very tentatively — that we are seeing the beginnings of re-engagement at a more organic level.

From the jazz perspective, there are extremely interesting interviews about the making of To Pimp a Butterfly with the participants here (with Natalie Weiner of Billboard) and here (with Jay Deshpande of Slate). Martin, Steven Ellison (Flying Lotus), Washington, Coleman and the Bruner brothers are around 30 years old and, like Lamar, grew up in Los Angeles. Several of them received an informal education at the late Billy Higgins’ regular World Stage gig in Leimert Park. Akinmusire, who is a similar age, was born in Oakland. Glasper is in his mid-thirties and was born in Texas and studied in New York. They are equally familiar and comfortable with the music of John Coltrane, Public Enemy, Sun Ra, Tupac Shakur, Thelonious Monk and Snoop Dogg. They know these idioms from the inside. And they’re finding ways to make that familiarity work.

I’ve also been listening to an advance copy of Washington’s extraordinary debut album, a three-CD set called The Epic. It’s a big work in title, tone and textures, almost three hours long, divided into 17 tracks, and lining up a 32-piece string orchestra, a 20-voice choir and the occasional vocal contribution by Patrice Quinn alongside a 10-piece jazz combo. An extract from one of Malcolm X’s most celebrated speeches also makes an appearance.

In its layering of the combo and the choir, The Epic has some of the sweep of Max Roach’s It’s Time and Donald Byrd’s I’m Tryin’ to Get Home, both of which were arranged, in 1962 and 1964 respectively, by the African-American composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. In jazz terms, it stays mostly “inside”: the moves are the familiar ones of modal jazz from the era of A Love Supreme, before Coltrane cut loose in 1965 with Ascension, which took him into the final phase of his career. Any disappointment at a failure to engage with those later developments is mitigated by the sheer energy with which the music is attacked, and the degree of inventiveness on display within the now-traditional forms.

Washington’s music comes at you in waves, surging and receding with the power that Carlos Santana and Mike Shrieve were looking for when they tried to harness Coltrane’s sound and spirituality to the drive of their own Latino rock on Caravanserai, Welcome and Borboletta in the early ’70s. Multiple drummers, multiple electronic keyboards and modal structures are among the common elements. This is music in search of transcendence and/or catharsis.

Forty years later, however, there’s a great deal more self-assurance about this project, and the solos — particularly those of Washington, who has a sound as big as his ideas, and the trumpeter Igmar Thomas — never lack conviction or substance. Here’s a sample, a comparatively straight-ahead 14-minute piece called “Re Run Home”. You might find that the trumpet-trombone-tenor sound puts you in mind of the front line on Coltrane’s classic Blue Train, but there’s nothing to object to in that: why not use it as an available colour, offset by a very differently orientated rhythm section? Stay with it through to the conclusion, where the textures grow sparser but the groove intensifies.

It’s too early to be definitive about all this, to claim that this new development represents the future, or to dismiss it because the kind of jazz they’re exploring/exploiting isn’t, of itself, new and challenging. What matters is that some interesting young minds are facing up to the problem of where jazz goes next, and they’re turning it into an adventure.

* The photograph is from the insert accompanying To Pimp a Butterfly. The credited photographers are Denis Rouvre and Roberto Reyes. The Epic will be released at the beginning of May on the Brainfeeder label.

Glass window

Lennie TristanoIn an early chapter of Words Without Music, his new autobiography, Philip Glass remembers how, soon after his arrival in New York in 1957, while waiting for a place at the Juilliard conservatory, he called the pianist and teacher Lennie Tristano from a phone booth on the Upper West Side to ask for lessons. Tristano himself answered the phone.

“Mr Tristano, my name is Philip Glass. I’m a young composer. I’ve come to New York to study, and I know your work. Is there any chance I can study with you?”

“Do you play jazz?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Do you play the piano?”

“A little. I came here, really, to study at Juilliard, but I love your music and I wanted to be in touch with you.”

“Well,” he said, “thank you for the call, but I don’t know that there’s anything I can do for you.”

He was kind, almost gentle. He wished me luck.

Fifty years later, while listening to the section called “Train” from his opera Einstein on the Beach, the work that eventually made him famous, Glass found himself wondering about the source of inspiration for the piece:

A part of the music was almost screaming to be recognised. I began looking around in my record library, and I came upon the music of Lennie Tristano… I found what I was looking for. Two tracks: the first, “Line Up”, and the second, “East 32nd Street”. I listened to them and there it was. No, the notes weren’t the same. Most listeners would probably not have heard what I did. But the energy, the feel, and, I would say, the intention of the music was completely and accurately captured in the “Train”. It doesn’t sound like him, but it shares the idea of propulsion, the self-confidence, and the drive. There’s an athleticism to it, a nonchalance, an “I don’t care if you listen to it or not — here it is.”

By coincidence, I was in the middle of reading Glass’s book when a package arrived containing a two-CD set featuring a newly discovered live recording of Tristano and his sextet — Willie Dennis (trombone), Lee Konitz (alto), Warne Marsh (tenor), Buddy Jones (bass) and Mickey Simonetta (drums) — from the Blue Note club in Chicago in the spring of 1951. Tristano’s discography is sufficiently thin to make this album, with its excellent sound and impeccable annotation, a major event.

The mood is relaxed, the playing intense. Tristano was a Jesuitical figure whose insistence on technical and conceptual rigour from his students was legendary. Only the best survived. Konitz and Marsh were the best known of his acolytes, and they are close to top form here. Tristano’s own playing is as densely figured as usual, whether soloing or comping behind the horns. Dennis is the surprise: somehow he makes the trombone achieve the cliché-free agility required of Tristano’s improvisers.

All the tunes, as was Tristano’s wont, are based on his favourite chord sequences, whether he wrote them or not: “Fine and Dandy” for Marsh and Konitz’s “Sax of a Kind”, “All of Me” for Marsh’s “Background Music”, “Idaho” for Konitz’s “Tautology”. The leader’s suave spoken introductions are almost worth the price of admission alone, as when he follows Konitz’s swift, knotty “Palo Alto” (based on “Strike Up the Band”) with this: “I hope this gentlemen down here right in front enjoyed that more than he might have enjoyed ‘The Tennessee Waltz’, which he requested.”

Glass’s book provides a charmingly unpretentious portrait of an artist’s life, from the studies with Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar which shaped his conception to his productive acquaintanceships with Samuel Beckett, Merce Cunningham, Richard Serra, Chuck Close, William Burroughs, Jasper Johns, Allen Ginsberg, Joseph Papp and many others. There’s a valuable account of how he turned away from the post-war orthodoxy of 12-tone composition, including the following passage:

When I had returned to New York in 1967, I had discovered that the people around me at the time — painters and sculptors like Bob Rauschenberg , Sol LeWitt and Richard Serra — all listened to rock ‘n’ roll. They did not listen to modern music. It was not in their record collections.

When I asked them, “Do you listen to modern music?” I found that they weren’t interested at all. None of them listened to modern music: Stockhausen, Boulez, or Milton Babbitt — forget it. You’d never find that music there. There was more of a connection, for example, between artists and writers. What Ginsberg was doing in poetry and what Burroughs was doing in literature were not that different from what was going on in the art world.

“Why is there a disconnect here?” I asked myself.

Consciously, or to some degree unconsciously, I was looking for the music that should be in their record collection. If Rauschenberg and Johns were looking at paintings and saying, “What could go into a painting and what goes on in a painting?” I asked myself, “What is the music that goes with that art?”

I started going to the Fillmore East…

* The photograph is from the cover of Lennie Tristano: Chicago April 1951, released on the Uptown label. Philip Glass’s Words Without Music is published by Faber & Faber.

In the gallery

Giovanni Guidi TrioArt galleries can be good places to listen to creative music, and the small Rosenfeld Porcini gallery in London — in Fitzrovia, actually, with entrances in Rathbone Street and Newman Street — provided a near-perfect environment for last night’s concert by the trio of the young Italian pianist Giovanni Guidi, who has yet to become well known but is one of the most interesting musicians on the current European jazz scene.

Along with the American bassist Thomas Morgan and the Portuguese drummer João Lobo, Guidi was celebrating the release of This Is the Day, the trio’s second album for ECM. On its cover is a painting by the French artist Emmanuel Barcilon, who exhibits at Rosenfeld Porcini. Over the last couple of years Guidi has twice given solo recitals at the gallery, but this was the first time the trio has been heard in the UK.

The album is a thing of great beauty (as was its predecessor, City of Broken Dreams, which made my best-of-2013 list), displaying three musicians bringing new thoughts to a familiar format. While Guidi applies his restrained yet ardent lyricism and super-refined touch to melodies that sometimes resemble children’s hymns and to improvisations that drift and reshape themselves like high clouds, Morgan and Lobo provide something more than commentary. These are three-way conversations conducted with a wonderful collective sense of space. The drummer occasionally intervenes to spike the mood of romanticism with the astringency of scraped cymbals or dry rattling sounds. The bassist provides a running counterpoint that can move gently into the foreground.

But, as so often, live performance brought the music fully to life, allowing them to enhance the gorgeous cadences of Guidi compositions such as “Where They’d Lived” and “The Night It Rained Forever” and to dwell on the quiet sensuality of their version of the old favourite “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás”, written in the 1940s by the Cuban songwriter Osvaldo Farrés.

This was the second time I’ve seen Thomas Morgan play live (the first was with Tomasz Stanko’s quartet two years ago) and it confirmed the first impression that he is a genuinely original musician. Over the last three or four years he’s become virtually ECM’s house bassist, turning in discreetly outstanding performances on albums by Masabumi Kikuchi, Enrico Rava, John Abercrombie, David Virelles, Craig Taborn and Jakob Bro, but Guidi’s group offers him the ideal environment for the full expression of his special gift.

On the face of it, he is a member of a generation of jazz bassists who’ve moved away from the ideal of technical virtuosity embodied by Scott LaFaro and Ron Carter, two great players whose influence became, through no fault of their own, overbearing and destructive. Now we hear more from bassists like Larry Grenadier — a member of Brad Mehldau’s trio for the past 20 years — and Olie Brice, who take their cue instead from the likes of Wilbur Ware and Charlie Haden and seem to believe that playing as fast and high as possible is not necessarily a desirable ambition. Morgan belongs in that camp, but he has something very different.

Born in California 1981, a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, he has the air of a shy schoolboy who is still in the early stages of learning his instrument. If you watched him through soundproof glass, you would think that his playing was awkward, diffident, even indecisive. His fingers shape themselves for a note or a phrase, hover over the strings, and then appear to change their mind. Remove that glass and you discover that his note choices, while unpredictable and surprising, are almost always perfect. He has a lovely command of tone: the true sound of the instrument, beautifully shaded, full of humanity. If a note doesn’t need to be played, you can see him deciding to leave it out. His combination of resolute modesty and emotional directness will inevitably remind listeners of Haden, but it comes from a different and very intriguing place.

This Is The Day offers the best possible showcase for his qualities, but it works so well only because this is a balanced trio in which the parts function together perfectly, the individual contributions shining all the brighter for the richness of the interplay. Much of the music is played in tempo rubato, free of strict time, swelling and receding with a collective instinct for pulse and flow; there was one busy passage, however, in which they seemed to be hurtling forward together in metred time, and you had to listen hard to discover that this was a brilliant illusion.

Last night’s performance was the final date of a short European tour. The sustained warmth of the London audience’s response, which seemed to surprise and delight them (and led to a perfect encore with a dead-slow version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You”), can only have encouraged them to continue their remarkable work together.

* The photograph of the Giovanni Guidi Trio is from the insert of This Is the Day, and was taken by Caterina di Perri.


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